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Bill would add 9,000 state employees to North Dakota ethics panel's jurisdiction

The bill is for several changes requested by the commission, such as extending the time frame to notify an accused person of an ethics complaint, and adding criteria for who can make complaints

Left to right, Ethics Commission office manager Holly Gaugler, Commissioner David Anderson, Commission Chairman Paul Richard and Ethics Commissioner Cynthia Lindquist. They attended a Senate State and Local Government Committee hearing at the North Dakota State Capitol on Jan. 6, 2023.
Left to right, Ethics Commission office manager Holly Gaugler, Commissioner David Anderson, Commission Chairman Paul Richard and Ethics Commissioner Cynthia Lindquist attended a Senate State and Local Government Committee hearing at the North Dakota State Capitol on Jan. 6, 2023.
Darren Gibbins / Bismarck Tribune
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BISMARCK — North Dakota's Ethics Commission is asking the Legislature to expand the panel's oversight authority to include thousands of state employees.

The Senate State and Local Government Committee on Friday heard Senate Bill 2048, advanced by the Ethics Commission. The bill is for several changes requested by the commission, such as extending the time frame to notify an accused person of an ethics complaint, and adding criteria for who can make complaints.

The bill also would add about 8,960 executive branch employees to the ethics panel's jurisdiction over "public officials," but "only as it relates to lobbyist gifting." However, Commission Executive Director Rebecca Binstock submitted an amendment to the Senate panel to remove that limitation, which she said was a drafting error.

North Dakota voters in 2018 approved a ballot measure adding ethics mandates to the state constitution, creating the five-person panel, which began meeting in 2019.

The ethics board already has oversight of elected and appointed officials of the executive and legislative branches, members of the governor’s Cabinet, members of the Ethics Commission and legislative branch employees.

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Commission Chairman Paul Richard has said it's unclear why executive branch employees weren't included in the ballot measure. He has said the addition would be "appropriate" and enhance transparency.

Binstock told the committee that the ethics panel "really views this as an equitable expansion."

She said the Ethics Commission would have to dismiss a complaint for lack of jurisdiction if an executive branch employee were to accept a lobbyist gift, but a complaint would likely proceed if it involved a legislative branch employee.

"There is a differential treatment between employees of the executive branch and of the legislative branch, and the Ethics Commission does not believe that there is a rational reason for that differential treatment, and that in order to have a consistent application, we need to include everybody in that," Binstock said.

She cited seven other states, including neighboring Montana and South Dakota, with ethical jurisdiction over executive branch employees.

Binstock said the commission doesn't have authority over personnel matters, and the addition of state employees to its authority would be limited in the function of ethics rules.

Measure supporters "did not intentionally leave anybody out" when drafting the initiative, according to Ellen Chaffee, who helped lead the ethics effort. North Dakotans For Public Integrity supports the change, she added. The measure "was intended to be inclusive," she said.

"There was no discussion about should we include (executive branch employees) or should we not, that I can recall," Chaffee told the Tribune. "It was just who do we mean, let's be specific, and we just ran out of people to include. It just didn't come up."

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The Senate committee did not take immediate action on the bill. Only Binstock testified.

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